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General Matthew B. Ridgway: Personal Reminiscences by Michael D. Swanson, M.D.

Presentation for the opening of “General Matthew B. Ridgway: My Battles in War and Peace” on June 1, 2010 at the George C. Marshall Museum

Thank you Brian, for your kind words of introduction.

May I say, on behalf of myself and my son, Matt, what a pleasure and a privilege it is to be back, once again, in this most historic town of Lexington, Virginia, and what an honor it is for me to be asked to speak at the George C. Marshall Foundation on an authentic American Hero, my friend and my son’s namesake, General Matthew B. Ridgway.

My wife, Linn, and I were privileged to have maintained a close friendship with General Ridgway, and his gracious and lovely wife, Mary Anthony (Penny) Ridgway, for the last twenty years of their lives. Few other experiences in our lives, except the births of our children, have been so profound and meaningful as our experiences and conversations with the Ridgways during those 20 years.

As a 23 year old graduate of the University of California at Davis, I left a politically confused University of California in 1971 with a degree in history and a pre-medicine background, and travelled to Washington, D.C. to enroll at Georgetown University School of Medicine as a freshman medical student.  Incidentally, I applied to Georgetown because I knew there were Civil War, ( or more properly, War Between the States) Battlefields in the area; I’m not sure I knew, at the time, that Georgetown was a Catholic, Jesuit Institution.  Anyway, I had the great, good fortune of meeting my future, lovely bride, Linn McCarthy from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a senior nursing student at Georgetown.  We were married in the summer of 1972, at the end of my freshman year, and after her graduation from nursing school.  On one of our weekend trips to Pittsburgh, in 1973, the name “Ridgway” was mentioned by one of Linn’s friends as they were discussing a mutual friend who lived next door to the Ridgways.  Of course, my ears were all attention as I knew the name, Matthew B. Ridgway, from John S.D. Eisenhower’s classic work on the Battle of the Bulge, “The Bitter Woods”, which I had read 2 years before, and “The Longest Day”, Cornelius Ryan’s book and Darryl F. Zanuck’s movie.  Through my finagling,  and my wife’s friend as the intermediary, an introduction was made at the Ridgway’s home in the Spring of 1973, and the friendship was born.

General Matthew Bunker Ridgway was 78 years old at the time of our introduction.  He was born, March 3, 1895, at Fort Monroe, Virginia.  His father, Thomas Ridgway, was a West Point graduate and a career army artillery officer, who had served in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901.  His mother, Ruth Starbuck Bunker Ridgway, was a concert-class pianist and collector of objects d’ art.  He was proud to be an “Army Brat”, growing up at army posts throughout the country.  While living at Fort Monroe, Virginia, he witnessed the “Great White Fleet” assembling and leaving Hampton Roads, Virginia in December, 1907, on President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Show the Flag” around the world tour. He entered West Point in the Fall of 1913, graduating in April, 1917,2 months early, because of our entry into World War I.  To his great disappointment, and fear that his army career was doomed before it had started, he was assigned to the Texas-Mexican Border for the duration of the war.

He persevered and endured the inter-war years in an underfunded, undermanned, and underappreciated U.S. Army, as many other future army heroes did.  He was assigned to West Point, after the war, as an instructor in Romance languages, since he was fluent in Spanish, but was initially told to teach French, which he did not know, however quickly learned.  He later became athletic manager during Douglas MacArthur’s tenure as Superintendent of West Point.

He had four important assignments during the 1920’s and 1930’s, which placed him in subordinate positions under George C. Marshall, General Ridgway’s mentor, patron, and idol. First, as a company commander under assistant regimental commander Marshall with the 15th Infantry Regiment at Tientsin, China in the mid 1920’s.  Second, as a student under Commandant Marshall at the Advanced Course/Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia 1929-1930.  Third, a planning and execution role for military maneuvers in the Midwest under Marshall in 1935 and 1936.  Fourth, as a delegate on a military mission to Brazil in 1939, led by Brigadier General George C. Marshall.  At some point during these interactions, General Ridgway’s name was entered into the legendary Marshall “Black Book” of future military leaders.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ridgway, in early 1942, was assigned as Assistant Division Commander under General Omar Bradley, to the newly reactivated 82nd Infantry Division, the All-American Division.  General Bradley was soon reassigned to command the struggling Pennsylvania National Guard 28th Division, Ridgway was given command of the 82nd, and in August, 1942, he was ordered to convert the 82nd Infantry Division into the 82nd Airborne Infantry Division.  By early 1943, the 82nd Airborne was operational  in North Africa, conducted its first combat parachute jump in Sicily, and participated in the Italian Invasion at Salerno in September, 1943.

I might interject at this point, that one of General Ridgway’s proudest achievements, which he mentioned many times, was the cancellation of an ill-conceived, coup-de-main style, drop of the 82nd Airborne into Rome, at the time of the Italian Surrender. He secretly sent into Rome his assistant division commander, Maxwell Taylor, who signaled that the Italian forces were in no position to provide material support to the 82nd against German Forces in Rome, holding on while waiting for a theoretically quick, relieving Allied thrust from the south. The operation was cancelled with the division already in C-47’s on the takeoff runways with engines running.

D-Day, June 6th, 1944, found General Ridgway, at the age of 49, parachuting into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne, and engaged in active, personal combat for the next 33 days. This included a critical action on the La Fiere Causeway over the Merderet River, when he and General James Gavin walked toward the enemy, under intense fire, inspiring their paratroopers to leave the cover of roadside ditches, and storm and take the German positions on the other side of the causeway.

General Ridgway was elevated to command of the newly formed XVIIIth Airborne Corps in August, 1944, but watched in frustration as operational control of his unit was transferred to British control  for the ill-conceived Market-Garden Operation of Arnhem/”A Bridge too Far” fame.  Feelings concerning this event were still quite heated 40 years later, as General Ridgway and General James Gavin engaged in verbal fisticuffs with the British contingent on a Market-Garden/Arnhem commemoration trip in 1984.

The emergency that was the Battle of the Bulge, in December, 1944, found General Ridgway playing an essential role, employing the XVIIIth Airborne Corps and other units in maintaining the defense of the critical northern shoulder of the Bulge, by the delaying action at St. Vith, a  key crossroads, which many military historians think was a more vital accomplishment than  the much more famous, but important  defense of Bastogne by the 101st Airborne Division.  Personal combat was again evidenced by his disabling a German self-propelled gun, which had surprised him while on his way to inspect a front-line unit.  Days later, it was discovered that the gun’s crew had been destroyed by armor piercing ammunition from General Ridgway’s Springfield rifle, aimed at the swastika insignia on the gun’s side.

As the war in Europe was approaching its conclusion, Ridgway’s command and other units had surrounded and trapped as many as 330,000 Wehrmacht soldiers in the famous Ruhr Pocket in April, 1945.  In typical Ridgway fashion, he sent a German speaking aide, under flag of truce, to the German commander, Field Marshall Walter Model, asking for surrender of all forces by citing General Robert E. Lee’s action at Appomattox Courthouse 80 years before, and how that action had helped cement Lee’s reputation as one of history’s most beloved and admired military commanders.  Model, unfortunately, did not accept the offer, committed suicide, and the command was surrendered anyway, shortly thereafter.

Following World War II, General Ridgway, in approaching the climax of his military career, held several important positions including military representative on the United States’ United Nations delegation (where he verbally crossed swords with Joseph Stalin’s  “Great Purges Trial” prosecutor and henchman, Andrei Vishinsky), and U.S. Forces Commander of the Caribbean Area.  The two most important events in his life at this time were his marriage to Mary Princess Anthony, affectionately known as Penny, in 1947, and the birth of their son, Matthew Bunker Ridgway, Jr., or Matty, in April, 1949.

Perhaps General Ridgway’s most important service to our country was his assumption of command of the Eighth Army in Korea, December 26th, 1950, following the tragic death of General Walton Walker during the critical days following the Chinese People’s Liberation Army  intervention, eight weeks before.  “Do what you think best, Matt, the Eighth Army is yours”, Supreme Commander, General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur told General Ridgway on his arrival in Tokyo, and General Ridgway did just that.  Restoring morale and fighting capability to the so-called “Bug-Out” Eighth Army as it retreated down the Korean Peninsula, mostly by appearing, as usual, in front-line positions and issuing G.I. oriented, condition improving orders, he stemmed the retreat, and within eight weeks, halted in prepared defensive positions, then launched offensive operations, dubbed “Killer” and “Ripper”, aimed at destroying enemy forces.  The situation had been retrieved, and by July, 1951, armistice negotiations had begun, although two more years of bloody, attritional fighting was required until the armistice was concluded, July 27th, 1953.  General of the Army Omar Bradley, named General Ridgway’s performance as possibly the greatest military achievement in American military history.

In the meantime, General Ridgway succeeded General of the Army Douglas MacArthur in all of his command positions when President Harry S. Truman relieved General MacArthur in April, 1951.  In June, 1952, General Ridgway succeeded General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, overseeing both NATO and United States Forces in Europe, when General Eisenhower decided to run for the Presidency.     Finally, General Ridgway became Army Chief of Staff, under President Eisenhower, in the Spring of 1953.  Three major issues occupied his tenure.  The first was the defense policies of “Massive Retaliation” and “The New Look”, the ideas that nuclear weapons could be delivered by Naval and Air Force means, thus obviating the need for significant Army “Boots on the Ground” forces.  These were policies advocated by Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and Defense Secretary Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson, formerly Chairman of General Motors.  General Ridgway was able to uphold the idea that the Army was still an integral part of defense capability, and that policy continues to this day.

The second issue concerned the clamor for U.S. Military involvement in Indo-China following the defeat of the French at Dien- Bien- Phu  in 1954.  General Ridgway anticipated this issue, particularly after his experiences in an Asian land-mass war, and sent a team of experts to the area to analyze the logistical, budgetary, and manpower requirements for such an endeavor.  The conclusions were that a commitment of 500,000 troops and  3 billion dollars per year would be required to successfully conduct such an effort.  This report was placed on President Eisenhower’s desk, and in his wisdom, with his military and logistical background, vetoed any such endeavor.  David Halberstam, in his best-selling book  “The Best and the Brightest”, was chronicling  the policy process that led to our involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia ten years later, inscribed his gift copy to General Ridgway with the words  “You are the only hero in this book.”  General Ridgway was immensely proud of this achievement.

The third issue was the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, when Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, attempted to parlay a real problem, Communist subversion in areas of the U.S. Government, into a personal, political aggrandizement movement at the expense of our Constitution and Bill of Rights mandated separation of powers and personal freedoms.  Having scurrilously impugned the loyalty of General of the Army, George C. Marshall, Senator McCarthy was effectively undone by a sharp Boston lawyer, Joseph N. Welch, before a nationally televised audience, abetted by newsman Edward R. Murrow with the subtle direction of Secretary of the Army, Robert T. Stevens, and the tacit, silent support of Army Chief of Staff, General Matthew B. Ridgway.

General Ridgway retired  after 41 years of military service to his country, in 1955.  He accepted a position  as Chairman, Board of Trustees , of the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, offered by Richard King Mellon, and fully retired in 1960.  He remained in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his life.     A visit to the Ridgway home in Fox Chapel was always an eagerly anticipated event.  After turning into the driveway, the entrance of which was flanked by two Scottish Cairn, stone sentinels, one proceeded 100 feet between two rows of spectacular, 8 foot high, rhododendron bushes, the old buds of which General Ridgway had proudly plucked, individually, by hand, in preparation for next seasons blossoms, to the top of the driveway circle which led to the two story, English Tudor home perched above the old-oak filled hollow, and to its front door.  Invariably, General and Mrs. Ridgway waited outside their front door, she with her warm, welcoming smile, he with his vise-like grip upon hand-shaking, which remained firm into his early 90’s.  Upon entry into the foyer, one was confronted by an impressive, full-sized display of his eight command flags, a table with the General’s portrait woven in Japanese silk, and a photograph of the Ridgway’s beloved son, Matty.  A left turn led to the den/library, its walls covered with framed medals and decorations (the smaller, more austere decorations were the most important ones, he always said), an invitation to sit either on a comfortable club chair or sofa, and the General measuring out the bourbon or vodka in a sterling silver shot-glass, sized somewhere between  a standard jigger and a crystal, scotch tumbler.  At this point, the conversations would begin, with me steering toward historical topics, and my wife, Linn, moving toward equally important topics of everyday life.  The anecdotes would then flow.  Three of them stand out in my memory.

The first occurred when General Ridgway was athletic manager at West Point, during the Superintendency of Douglas MacArthur , in 1920.  Captain Ridgway and General MacArthur drove to New York City in December, 1920, to see the Jack Dempsey/Bill Brennan heavyweight championship fight at Madison Square Garden.  On the return trip home they encountered a thick fog which forced one of them to walk the highway dividing line while the other, behind the wheel of the flivver, crept slowly behind.  Upon reaching West Point after midnight, and approaching the Thayer Hotel just outside West Point’s front gate, Mrs. MacArthur, General  MacArthur’s  mother, was waiting on the front porch, tapping her foot, as General Ridgway related, waiting for her son to come home.  General MacArthur was 40 years old at the time, a combat veteran in World War I, and a Congressional Medal of Honor nominee.

The second memorable story occurred in 1944, just prior to  the D-Day Landings .  A briefing by General Bernard Law Montgomery, the overall ground forces  commander , was conducted in London before all general officers of all three service branches of all three countries involved in the invasion.  When the tee-totaling, non-smoking General Montgomery  was the senior officer in attendance, no smoking was allowed.  In the middle of the briefing, the back door of the hall burst open, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill entered  puffing on a gigantic, black cigar.  The entire room erupted in laughter, even General Montgomery had a smile on his face, and the “smoking lamp” was lit as most officers pulled out cigarettes and lighters.     One evening in the early 1980’s, we had returned to the Ridgway’s home after dinner, and over after-dinner drinks, the conversation somehow alighted on Broadway musicals, and the recently opened show “Evita” was mentioned.  Immediately, a flash of fire appeared in Mrs. Ridgway’s eyes, a subtle smile crossed the General’s face and we learned of the Argentina state visit, probably occurring in 1948.  General Ridgway, as Caribbean Area Commander, traveled to Argentina with Mrs. Ridgway on state and military business.  The Perons, Juan and Eva , were in power at the time. While General Ridgway and his advisors were closeted with Juan Peron and his advisors conducting state and military business, Eva Peron was directed to conduct Mrs. Ridgway on a tour of her social welfare projects , built on behalf of her working-class worshippers, “Los Descamisanos”, the “Shirtless Ones”.  The tour lasted 7 hours, and because of Evita’s jealously of Mrs. Ridgway, a fashion-model type of beauty of Life Magazine cover caliber, no restroom breaks were provided for. Evita’s apartment projects for her “Shirtless Ones” were Potemkin Villages without running water or indoor plumbing .  When General Ridgway returned to their penthouse hotel suite, he was confronted by his furious wife who heatedly refused to attend that evening’s state dinner because “That  Woman” would be there.  General Ridgway attended the dinner alone, telling a disappointed Juan Peron, who had taken a shine to Mrs. Ridgway, “Mrs. Ridgway is indisposed”.  Overnight, Juan Peron elicited the real story of what had happened, and the following morning General Ridgway, responding to a knock on the penthouse suite door, opened it to find an army of bellhops each carrying a spray of flowers from Juan and Eva Peron to fill the foyer in apology for the previous day’s events.

The West Point motto of “Duty, Honor, Country” was the touchstones of General Ridgway’s conduct and career.  In May of 1985, at the age of 90, he was summoned by President Ronald Reagan to accompany him at a German military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany.  The occasion was a symbolic meeting with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and severely wounded, Luftwaffe ace and veteran, Johannes Steinhoff, marking the end of Germany’s status as a conquered enemy, divided and controlled by the victor nations, and, anticipating ultimate German reunification, reentry as a coequal in the family of nations.  A howl of protest had been raised, understandably, by various groups in the United States, including veterans groups, because SS members, albeit Waffen- SS, were buried there (as they were in every German military cemetery).  General Ridgway knew of and agreed with the foreign policy statement being made, and, interrupting a vacation in Hilton Head, South Carolina, flew to Germany, and walked in the cemetery with President Reagan, Chancellor Kohl, and Colonel Steinhoff.  When General Ridgway offered an unscripted handshake to Colonel Steinhoff, the protests of the U.S. veterans groups were immediately silenced.     When President Reagan presented General Ridgway with the Presidential Medal of Freedom one year later, he said: “Heroes come when they are needed; Great Men step forward when courage seems in short supply.”

The Ridgway’s most courageous moment, however, was when they faced the devastating loss of their beloved, twenty-two year old son, Matty, in a freakish canoe portaging accident in the North Canada woods, July 1, 1971.  Matty had just graduated from Bucknell University and had  received his parachute wings and an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army Reserves.  By many estimations, his character and conduct promised greatness,  possibly exceeding his father’s.  The Ridgways bore this tragic loss with dignity and grace, armed with the assurance in their hearts that this was only a temporary separation.  My wife, Linn, and I were honored and touched  upon receiving from the Ridgways, an inscribed copy of the monograph, eulogizing and memorializing Matty, which they had privately printed the year after his death.  My wife and I felt that our most fitting tribute to the Ridgways and in memory of their beloved Matty, was to name our first-born child, Matthew Ridgway Swanson, a gesture they deeply appreciated.  Our son, Matt, was fortunate to have known General and Mrs. Ridgway as well, and he has conducted his life in accordance with those ideals. General Matthew B. Ridgway died July, 26th, 1993 at the age of 98.  Four years later he was followed in death by his beloved, Penny.

I last saw General Ridgway in late 1991, shortly after he had been visited by Senators Strom Thurmond and Sam Nunn, to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, as a post Desert Storm gesture linked to the performance of his old commands, the 82nd Airborne Division and the XVIIIth Airborne Corps in that war.  He was also presented the Combat Infantryman’s Badge by General Colin Powell, an award he valued more highly than the Gold Medal, and could not receive at the time of its introduction in early World War II because he was already a general officer, and the award was only for ranks from colonel and below.  At age 96 his knees were frail, his mind was razor sharp, and his handshake was still firm and strong.

In conclusion, I can think of no more fitting way to end this presentation, than quoting from General Colin Powell’s eulogy for General Ridgway, read at his funeral in Arlington National Cemetery on July 30th,1993:

“ No soldier ever performed his duty better than this man.  No soldier ever upheld his honor better than this man.  No soldier loved his country more than this man did. Every American Soldier owes a debt to this Great Man”.

I thank you for your very kind attention.